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Appeals by Pawar and Raj Thackeray bail out the BJP in Andheri East

Although the BJP withdrew its candidate today for the by-election, paving the way for the Shiv Sena (Uddhav) nominee to win, there is uncertainty caused by the 24 dummy candidates fielded by it

Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray (File photo)
Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray (File photo)
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Sujata Anandan / Mumbai

The decision of the BJP to withdraw its candidate Murji Patel from the byelection to the Andheri East assembly constituency was prompted by the virtual certainty of defeat, say observers. The demography of the constituency favoured the Shiv Sena faction led by Uddhav Thackeray and BJP was keen that the Eknath Shinde faction in power put up its own candidate.

It was only after the Shinde faction refused to bite the bait, again guided by the certainty of defeat, that the BJP had reluctantly announced that it would field a candidate against Uddhav Thackeray’s nominee Rutuja Latke, widow of the deceased MLA and supported by the Congress and the NCP. Appeals issued by Sharad Pawar and Raj Thackeray to withdraw from the fray gave BJP a face-saving pretext to walk away.

The death of Ms Latke’s husband had led to the byelection and she was tipped to win. The BJP expected the two Shiv Sena factions to fight it out in the byelection and prompted the Eknath Shinde faction to petition the Election Commission of India to allot it urgently the original party symbol to contest the election. But though the EC froze the original bow and arrow symbol of the Shiv Sena and allotted two temporary symbols to the two factions, the Shinde faction developed cold feet and refused to put up a candidate. A defeat in the byelection would have been damaging to its public profile and weakened its case of representing the ‘real’ Shiv Sena.

But BJP too found itself on a sticky wicket. A defeat in the by election would affect the party’s electoral prospects in neighbouring states, particularly Gujarat. Results of the Nagpur panchayat polls this week also came as a severe setback for the BJP, which failed to win a single seat out of the 13. Congress won nine of the seats, three went to the NCP and one to the Shiv Sena.  With both Devendra Fadnavis, BJP strongman and current deputy chief minister, and Chandrakant Bawankule, the state BJP president, hailing from Nagpur, the electoral reverse would have stung the party. While BJP with its usual bravado had been claiming that Baramati, Sharad Pawar’s home turf, was on its hit-list, Marathi social media was flooded by messages mocking the party. “Save your home turf first, then we will see if you can win Baramati or Andheri,” was the refrain. Andheri is now lost to the party and Baramati too might not be easy to conquer.

The withdrawal was facilitated by a lifeline thrown to the BJP by both Sharad Pawar and MNS chief Raj Thackeray. Both had appealed to the BJP’s good sense and political convention to withdraw from Andheri and allow Ms Latke to win ‘unopposed’. While the BJP gratefully grasped at the straw to wriggle out of a tricky situation, and Ms Latke’s late husband said to have been close to Raj Thackeray and several other MLAs now in the Shinde faction explains the appeal by the MNS chief, what prompted Sharad Pawar to issue the appeal?

BJP and the Shinde faction of the SS were not only seen as harassing the widow of a Marathi manoos but also supporting a Gujarati against a Maharashtrian. NCP sources claim that Pawar's appeal was aimed at denying Raj Thackeray the credit of brokering the truce. 

What is more, BJP has revived the case against Ajit Pawar which it had withdrawn when he was hurriedly sworn in as deputy chief minister with Fadnavis as CM after the last assembly election.

Sharad Pawar on Sunday held a press conference to request the BJP to withdraw its candidate from the fray in view of the ‘tradition in Maharashtra’ not to oppose the relative of a candidate who dies mid-term necessitating a by-poll. “We did this when BJP leader Gopinath Munde passed away in 2014. We decided not to field our candidate if one of his relatives contested for his seat, ” explained Pawar.

However, the decision not to field a candidate against Munde’s daughter was a one-off and not a tradition, necessitated by the fact that in 2014 NCP was hard put to find suitable candidates to contest elections.

As recently as in May 2021, NCP had put up Bhagirath Bhalke, son of Bharat Bhalke, who had died a year after winning the Pandharpur assembly seat in Solapur district. BJP had not then gave much thought to ‘tradition’. Nor did Pawar make an appeal to the ‘tradition’ then.

So, is there more than meets the eyes this time?

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